How to work fewer hours and get more done?
Updated: May 3, 2021
Most of us get trapped in the belief that longer hours will lead to higher productivity and better outcomes. Yet, for most knowledge workers, that hypothesis fails to hold. I recently finished reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport who explained how to reorganize your work to get better results.
In order to understand how to reorganize our lives, we need to first differentiate between deep work and shallow work. Deep work involves activities where we are utilizing most of our cognitive abilities and even pushing them to their limits. Examples include when you are trying to learn a new topic, writing a research paper, or preparing a grant proposal. Such work requires a great deal of focus and thus, dedicated time to accomplish successfully (in the order of hours at a time). On the other hand, shallow work includes activities that are routine and do not involve pushing our cognitive abilities to their limits. Examples include sending emails to set up meetings, placing orders for materials, and filling out administrative forms.
While these examples might be straightforward, often the distinction between deep and shallow work might not be as obvious. In such cases, a tip that Cal Newport suggests is to estimate how long it would take to train a fresh college grad to complete a certain activity. For example, placing orders for materials would take the college grad a couple of weeks to get used to the system of ordering, while writing a research paper requires several months of training. The longer the duration of training needed, the deeper the activity is.
Once we identify deep and shallow activities in our work, the goal is to spend most of our time on deep work (greater than 70%) and less on shallow work. Although it might seem that having a desire to focus on deep work is sufficient, this idea is not true because on any given day, our willpower is limited and it takes effort to focus on deep work whereas shallow activities are constantly interrupting the day.
The original inspiration for deep work comes from Carl Jung's Bollingen Tower (where he would spend undisturbed hours working) or from Bill Gates’ “Think Weeks” (where he would disconnect from all distractions to gain insight into new topics). I now recognize that even my postdoctoral mentor George Whitesides has similar tendencies where he would edit several papers (or outlines as we called them in the group) on his flights (when he wasn’t distracted by e-mails and meetings) or when he would learn a new topic (e.g., quantum mechanics) over a Christmas break.
The key insight in all these cases is that this work needs to be conducted without the distractions of email, social media, or other newsworthy websites. For example, personally, I have found that turning off all notifications on my phone and keeping it on mute has helped reduce the tendency of constantly checking it. I've also found that during my writing time (e.g., when working on a grant proposal or a paper), closing Outlook or switching it to offline mode is extremely helpful. The reason these methods work is because they help us manage our attention.
Although a peek at a notification or a new email might seem harmless, the act of switching from one task to another rapidly carries a large penalty known as attention residue, which means that our mind is still left on the distracting task and it takes a while to resume our deep activity. On the other hand, practicing focused work helps develop our neurons by building myelin (a layer of fatty tissue around neurons that helps them trigger faster and cleaner). Myelinated neurons help make certain tasks easier and more effective and myelination mostly happens when we repeat a given task (activity)—in this case, deep work—with focus.
A similar concept exists in the meditation practice that I follow—Sahaja Yoga. Taming our attention helps us grow spiritually and enter a state of “flow,” i.e., being in a state where you lose yourself in an activity. Such a state of flow is not only good for productivity but it is also more fulfilling and pleasurable. Our smartphones have made it challenging to enter this state by fragmenting our attention. We are unable to sit still and just be in the moment; instead, we are always craving something new. For example, while cooking and waiting for water to boil, we would check for status updates on Facebook or Instagram. One of the tips from Cal Newport is to “embrace boredom” and the key there is to practice short time periods of idleness instead of immediately grabbing our phones or surfing BuzzFeed.
As I mentioned earlier, deep work is not just about willpower; it requires planning and actions such that it becomes the easier thing to do. One effective way of doing so is to use your calendar and fill it out with key activities in blocks of time as I explained in detail previously in my article “How to prioritize your time?” Filling out a calendar accomplishes two goals: 1) it visualizes how much time you actually have and how much work can be accomplished in this time and thus, it forces you to prioritize; 2) it helps push the shallow work into gaps between deep work rather than the other way around. Initially, you will find yourself spending a lot more time on a particular activity than you expected and that is okay; it is part of initial calibration so that you can start allocating more time to similar activities in the future.
A calendar (I use Microsoft Outlook as seen in the image above) is also a useful tool to limit the number of hours you work. For example, when I started adding lunch and dinner to my calendar, I was skipping fewer meals and eating on-time more often. Limiting the number of hours of work also requires that you allow your brain to rest outside those hours. Resting is not only for relaxation, but also to allow the unconscious part of the brain to assimilate all the information that you have gathered throughout the day (e.g., inputs for a complex problem) and put those pieces together—in a way that conscious rationalization cannot. Such rest requires that when the workday ends, you stop working after that time (including stopping to check emails).
For me, it helps to have a separate physical location; e.g., work in a different area, sleep in a different area, and watch TV in a different area. Since our work is never truly finished, especially in research, a method to help rest after the day is done is to plan for how the remaining activities will be taken care of (e.g., any unfinished tasks on my calendar will be moved to a future date). This approach helps to be satisfied that you do not actively have to worry about that task (your calendar will take care of it). Cal Newport calls this a shutdown routine and at the end of the day, actually saying out loud “shutdown complete” helps him wrap up for the day. I have been able to do so on a weekly basis (i.e., wrap up my work on weekdays so that I'm not working on weekends) but I have yet to implement it on a daily basis.
Limiting the time spent on work also helps to “drain the shallows,” that is, minimize the time spent on shallow activities because you need to complete more important activities first.
To sum up, increase deep work, reduce shallow work, plan it out, and stick to the plan. These approaches will help reduce the stress of work and yet accomplish more. For more detailed justification and approaches, I recommend reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and you can get a preview by listening to the podcast Hidden Brain entitled “You 2.0: Deep Work” where I first heard about it. I have certainly started to appreciate depth in my work and I am looking forward to implementing it further.